If President Obama and Congress had announced that no financial reform legislation would pass unless Goldman Sachs agreed to the bill, we would conclude our leaders had been standing in the Washington sun too long. Yet when it came to addressing climate change, that is precisely the course the president and Congress took. Lacking support from those most responsible for the problem, they have given up on passing a major climate bill this year.
It's true that passing legislation to rebuild our fossil fuel-based economy was always going to be a momentous challenge. Senators and representatives feel in their bones (and campaign accounts) the interests of utilities and the coal and oil industries. Even well-intentioned members of Congress struggle to balance the competing needs of energy-intensive industries, coal workers and American families.
But with climate change a stated priority for President Obama and Congress, how did they fall so short? By weaving four coordinated threads into a shroud of inaction. This began long before President Obama took office, but rather than rip up the old pattern -- as he advocated during the campaign -- the president quickly took his place at the loom.
Thread No. 1: Climate is out; green jobs are in. Despite climate change being the greatest challenge of our time, with millions of people facing inundation, starvation and conflicts over scarce resources, the White House directed advocates not to discuss it. At a meeting in April 2009 led by Carol Browner, the White House coordinator of energy and climate policy, administration message mavens told climate bill advocates that, given the polling, they should avoid talking about climate change and focus on green jobs and energy independence.
Had Lyndon Johnson likewise relied on polling, he would have told the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to talk only about the expanded industry and jobs that Southerners would realize after passage of a federal civil rights act. I could imagine Dr. King's response.
The urge to avoid the topic of climate change is not new. While Bill Clinton and Al Gore have done noble work on climate since leaving office, when they had the presidential megaphone they did little to educate the public about the wolf at our door. President Obama has followed suit, and our national comprehension of climate change continues to stagnate. Virtually the only public officials working to shape opinion on this over the past two years have been those committed to misrepresenting the science.
Thread No. 2: Devising a bill for historic polluters, not the American people. Remember the president's campaign pledge to represent the people, not the lobbyists? That's not what he's done on this issue.
For several years the Beltway wisdom has been that it is impossible to pass a bill without the approval of historic polluters, particularly the utilities, which run coal-burning power plants, the nation's single largest source of climate-changing pollution. The administration and Congress did their best to get the industry's permission for new regulations. They proposed handing power companies hundreds of billions of dollars worth of allowances to pollute, additional billions to subsidize the development of technology to sequester carbon from coal-fired plants, and evisceration of federal authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon. Peter Orszag, the budget director, said giving away pollution permits would be "the largest corporate welfare program that has ever been enacted in the history of the United States." But no matter -- it wasn't enough.
Thread No. 3: A Rube Goldberg-policy construction. Because Congress built a policy machine designed for special interests, most proposals were chockablock with policy contraptions impossible to even explain, much less put into effect. Provisions included pollution allowances for favored corporations, carbon credit-default swaps, complicated worldwide offset provisions to enable avoidance of actual pollution reductions at home and loopholes to extend the life of the dirtiest coal plants. By the end of the process, even Campbell Soup demanded a special deal for the carbon-intensive job of making chicken noodle soup.
This rush to the trough was inevitable once President Obama ditched his plan to push a simple market-based bill that would have required polluters, rather than citizens, to pay for switching from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy.
Thread No. 4: The public sits it out. American history has few examples of presidents or Congresses upending entrenched interests without public pressure forcing their hand. Teddy Roosevelt is on Mount Rushmore for a reason.
Citizens wouldn't support an approach they couldn't understand to solve a problem our leaders refused to acknowledge. Even the earth's flagging ability to support life as we know it couldn't stir a public outcry. The loudest voices insisted that leaders in Washington do nothing.
Lee Wasserman is the director of the Rockefeller Family Fund.
Cross-posted from the New York Times